By Sean Savage/JNS.org
While Israel has been engaged in a seemingly endless summer war with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which is indiscriminately firing rockets at Israeli cities, pro-Israel students are about to re-enter an increasingly hostile environment for the Jewish state on their college campuses.
Just a couple of weeks before the start of the 2014-15 school year, 53 pro-Israel student leaders prepared for that challenge by convening in Boston this week for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America’s (CAMERA) annual Student Leadership and Advocacy Training Conference. The varied three-day event included lectures such as “Less Hamas, more Hummus,” training on how to craft a personal narrative, mastering debate tactics, and gaining knowledge on some of the anti-Israel campus groups students may need to confront.
Allison Moldoff—a rising junior at Simmons College who led a battle on her campus to allow study abroad to Israel—described learning about how the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) “are not only anti-Israel, but that there’s a lot of anti-Semitism hidden there as well.”
“We also learned how to react to these groups on campus,” she told JNS.org. “Whether it be body language or what words you choose or the tone of your voice, there’s really a science to answering these groups, so your point can be made and you are accurately defending Israel.”
Elliott Hamilton, a rising senior at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who was attending CAMERA’s summer conference for a second time, said the gathering helped “reinvigorate his love for Zionism and defending Israel.”
Hamilton, who has attended other pro-Israel conferences, praised CAMERA’s unique approach to teaching students how to confront anti-Israel programming on campus. The students “were given the tools and the information to combat the various anti-Israel programming and how to address the bias in a powerful way,” he said.
“Everyone at the conference got hands-on experience that will be necessary to fight the information battles we face in the coming year,” said Hamilton.
An increasing number of schools have faced anti-Israel divestment votes by student governments. During the 2013-2014 school year, such votes took place on 15 campuses, a nearly 100-percent increase from the previous academic year.
At the same time, only one-third of the divestment proposals passed. CAMERA made it clear that it hopes to continue that trend. On the last day of the conference, a two-hour mock divestment vote gave students an opportunity to act out both sides of the debate in front of a mock student government panel consisting of CAMERA staffers.
Despite the mock vote’s student-unfriendly 8:30 a.m. start time, the undergrads appeared energetic and eager to apply the knowledge they had accumulated over the previous two days of the conference. The students were divided into two sides—one pro-Israel and the other pro-Palestinian—and volunteered to present their case to the student government. Students were judged not only on their ability to draw on facts about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also on their presentation style.
Echoing the real-life debates that have taken place on dozens of campuses, the students engaged in a discussion of frequently made accusations against Israel, such as the apartheid analogy.
The mock divestment debate was a new addition to this year’s conference. CAMERA also invited students other than the conference attendees to share their experiences on campus and “to provide [the attendees] with a variety of tools ranging from social media training to combating BDS resolutions,” said Aviva Slomich, director of CAMERA’s campus department.
Hali Haber, a student at the University of Central Florida and president of her school’s pro-Israel club Knights for Israel, felt that the mock BDS debate was the best part of the conference.
“I think practicing how to talk to the other side is extremely important,” Haber told JNS.org. “I hoped that I would take away the confidence it takes to advocate on campus, and I did.”
Haber, like fellow conference attendee Elliott Hamilton, had attended a number of other seminars run by pro-Israel organizations and felt that CAMERA’s program stood out for its straightforward approach with students.
“I think CAMERA’s conference is really unique,” she said. “They explain their goal up front and they also take everything that other conferences specialize in and put it all into one amazing conference.”
“What [CAMERA] stands for is not anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab, it is pro-peace and pro-facts,” said Allison Moldoff.
The Simmons College student added, “I can say very confidently that I am happily a CAMERA fellow because I know what I am doing is factual and true.”
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